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Search for Bodies on Kansas Farm Ends

ABC News, USA
Oct. 19, 2004
abcnews.go.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Tuesday October 19, 2004

A Woman Claims to Have Seen a Killing and Bodies Buried

ELKHART, Kan., Oct. 19, 2004 Oct. 18, 2004 – Investigators used heavy machinery to comb a Kansas farm for more than a week, after a woman involved in a divorce case testified she witnessed a killing and that there are several bodies buried on the property.

The search started Oct. 9 in Morton County, in southwest Kansas. Investigators from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Morton County Sheriff’s Office and the Kansas Highway Patrol searched two locations on the Bitner family farm between the towns of Manter and Richfield for what sources say could be up to two dozen bodies, possibly dating back to the 1970s.

The search of the 5,000-acre farm concluded late Monday, said Whitney Watson, a spokesman for the attorney general. But he added that the investigation is not finished and refused to say what — if any — evidence had been found.

“Law enforcement’s working diligently to execute the court-ordered search warrant while preserving public safety, but also respecting everyone involved,” Watson said.

Police reportedly questioned members of the Bitner family about the unsolved killing of an Elkhart teenager whose strangled body was found in a field near the farm in 1971.

Betty Bitner told The Associated Press that investigators asked family members about Suzanne Johnson, the 14-year-old whose body was found about two weeks after her disappearance 33 years ago. She told the AP that her husband, Larry Joe, who owns the land with his mother, gave investigators a DNA sample, but said he wasn’t concerned about the investigation.

“He didn’t do anything,” she said.

Authorities closed off the road to the farm as they searched, and officials have refused to say any more than that there is an investigation going on. But even that is more than the attorney general’s office normally says while a case is being investigated.

Because of the many rumors surrounding the investigation, the office broke with normal policy.

“It’s just important that they do a thorough job and justice requires that you do as thorough a job as necessary to either prove or disprove the basis for the search warrant,” Watson said. “Speculation and the spreading of rumors may only harm innocent people and they may hinder the investigation.”

Last week, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said there have been rumors for years about slayings and bodies buried on the farm.

But members of the Bitner family said Friday they believe what led to the current investigation was the testimony of their sister Rebecca Galaviz during a divorce hearing in Amarillo, Texas, in June.

According to court documents obtained by ABC News affiliate KAKE in Topeka, Galaviz testified about crimes she said allegedly happened while she was growing up.

Galaviz testified that many of the alleged victims were transients.

“Do you know where anybody is buried out there?” the judge asked Galaviz, according to the transcript.

“Test wells, where they had drilled for oil and stuff. They would put them down in test wells,” she answered.

According to the court transcript, Galaviz described how her father allegedly killed a man who lived near her grandparents.

“He tied his hands and then hooked them to the underneath of the pickup, and then he had the tractor come up and hit him in the back, so it crushed him between the pickup and the tractor,” she testified.

A source told KAKE that James Bitner had been subpoenaed to testify at the hearing on behalf of his son-in-law.

One of Bitner’s other daughters, Vicki Wise, said she was shocked to learn about Galaviz’s testimony.

“I have not even a clue how somebody could say something like that,” Wise said. “There’s nothing that ever, ever went on, on that farm. She came up with stories that none of us kids have ever seen, heard of or can even fathom has happened.”

Wise said her father, who died earlier this month, knew of the testimony and also knew that the KBI was going to investigate. He was not afraid of a KBI investigation, but he was upset about what one of his own children thought about him, she said.

“‘What kind of person can my daughter even think I am?’ he said, ‘I’ve never done that to anybody.’ He said, ‘What kind of monster does she think I am?’ ” Wise said.

Wise said she is confident the KBI search will turn up nothing.

The family is also upset with the way law enforcement is handling the investigation and released a statement Friday.

The statement, from family attorney Clinton Peterson, said “the entire Bitner family is angered and confused by the activity taking place on their farm.”

“Law enforcement officers chose to use violence, guns and intimidation and provide no explanation whatsoever,” the statement said.

The statement went on to say no one from the immediate family plans on talking until the investigation is concluded.

Jan Lunsford, a spokesman with the state attorney general’s office, declined to say how long the investigation might go on.

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